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Ghost opera

The rise and fall of the original Boston Opera House - and the void it left behind

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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Tucked away in a simple gray box within a basement archive at Northeastern University there is, curiously enough, a single red brick. It is close to all that remains of the original Boston Opera House, a magnificent “temple of music’’ that once stood in the middle of the city’s cultural corridor, on Huntington Avenue between the Museum of Fine Arts and Symphony Hall.

The Opera House opened 100 years ago this month, and its history will be fondly recalled this week at the Boston Lyric Opera’s annual gala. Its glory was real but, alas, short-lived as it fell into neglect and was demolished just shy of its 50th birthday in 1958. Improbably enough, Boston’s operatic fortunes managed to soar in the following decades with Sarah Caldwell’s tumultuously managed yet artistically brilliant Opera Company of Boston. But since her company folded in 1991, the city has not had homegrown opera of truly international standing, and, more to the point, no central venue for it - not a single place to see a fully staged performance of large-scale, musically monumental or grand opera. Taking a step back, this absence of a proper venue is a striking void in the cultural life of a city so rich in other dimensions, an Achilles’ heel in a musical scene that otherwise ranks with the finest in the nation.

In a way, this makes it all the more impressive that, without a single centralized location to call its home, the opera scene has made such big strides in recent years, turning its diversity and flexibility into its virtues. The two medium-size companies, Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston, as well as their supporters deserve the city’s gratitude for the wealth of opera they provide each year. Boston’s venue problems mean that they simply avoid works that would require the largest orchestral forces, yet in the repertoire they do choose they often produce compelling results that meet or surpass, sometimes widely, the standards for regional opera in this country. The city also abounds with quality Baroque opera, plucky chamber opera - there is even a troupe called “Guerilla Opera’’ - and there is plenty of opera-in-concert, at the BSO, the schools, and the local choruses.

Even in its current fractured state, the city’s opera scene is rich enough to catch the eye of Opera America, the national opera service organization, which plans to convene its annual conference here in May 2011.

In a new development, as of this fall, the other Opera House - the opulent theater on Washington Street that most Bostonians think of when they hear the name - has finally expanded and restored its pit. Yet while the space may now seem a tantalizingly good fit for what the opera community needs, and its name still hearkens back to the days when Caldwell worked her magic there, the venue remains, for nonmusical reasons, mostly out of reach for local opera.

So the void continues. Imagine a symphony orchestra that could play only a fraction of the great symphonic music written after 1860, and you can sense how limited the hard-working local companies are in their ability to put their art before the public. Without a single large venue there can also be no single large-scale company capable of presenting opera once again at a truly international level.

In a recent phone interview, Carole Charnow, the general director of Opera Boston put it succinctly: “If we are to be the ‘Athens of America,’ we have to be able to do grand opera. It’s that simple.’’

A home on Huntington

On a Monday night in November 1909, the Boston Opera House opened its doors with a performance of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.’’ The house sat 2,750 people, and had state-of-the-art stage technology. The Globe’s headline described it as “the best equipped temple of music in America.’’

Remarkably enough, the Opera House, built for $700,000, was chiefly financed by just one man, Eben D. Jordan, who also backed the city’s new resident Boston Opera Company for its first three seasons. Designed by the architects Wheelwright and Haven, it was a building seen as in a class with the Boston Public Library and Symphony Hall, with an understated elegance in keeping with Boston’s skepticism of gaudy excess, yet still with plenty of luxury, from its white marble staircase to its fluted columns to its special entrance for carriages. Over the years, Enrico Caruso, Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Renata Tebaldi, and other luminaries strode its stage. It was a stage, as proudly noted in one newspaper account, “as deep as the Metropolitan Opera stage and,’’ ahem, “20 feet wider.’’

The city’s operatic visionaries clearly had posterity on their minds when they conceived the new house. Beneath the cornerstone, laid in 1908, civic leaders placed a cultural time capsule, a sealed bronze box filled with lists of supporters’ names as well as daily newspapers, concert programs, yearbooks, scores, and recordings. The box was buried with elaborate ceremony, a musical dispatch to the ages. In a way, this window into the collective mind-set at the time makes it all the more poignant that the building was razed within the living memory of the very same community. At least, as newspaper accounts mentioned in 1958, Jordan wasn’t alive to see what befell the house he built.

As for the house’s first residents, the Boston Opera Company had a glorious run for a few short years but went bankrupt by 1915. The building changed ownership and for decades hosted yearly visits from the Metropolitan Opera among other touring companies. Even then, while opera was coming from elsewhere, the sheer abundance of the offerings was impressive. In just one month - April 1916 - the Met presented 12 different operas, from “Tosca’’ to “Tristan’’ to the local premiere of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.’’

Over the years the old Opera House was used for various other theatrical and musical entertainments, even prize fights. Boris Goldovsky led the first American stage performance of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens’’ there. But maintenance also slipped. As Quaintance Eaton puts it in her colorful history published in 1965, “the house on Huntington Avenue lost its pride bit by bit.’’ It fell into disrepair and eventually an official city complaint about the state of its ornamental terra cotta was enough to prompt its then-owners to sell it to a construction company. There were rumors that the building’s foundations were also unsound, though other reports contradicted this. In any event, it was razed soon thereafter. The Globe’s music critic Cyrus Durgin laid the blame for the loss of this cultural jewel squarely on the apathy of Boston itself.

From the press reports, many people seemed surprised by the suddenness of its departure. But in contrast to New York’s Carnegie Hall - which was also briefly destined to meet the wrecking ball, before the intervention of violinist Isaac Stern - Boston’s Opera House had no white knight. Today, Northeastern’s Speare Hall sits on the land.

Eaton’s 281-page account ends by pinning hopes on Sarah Caldwell, whose company raised its curtain the same year that the Opera House came down. (“The tendency to call her Boston’s phoenix is irresistible,’’ Eaton wrote.) Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston did have a blazing run, and a much longer one than its early-20th-century predecessor. Through theatrically vibrant productions of staples, rarities, and landmark operas that had yet to be staged in America, Caldwell once again put Boston on the international opera map. But Caldwell’s artistic vision was stronger than her business savvy. Her company lasted more than three decades but once it was gone, Boston’s opera scene lost its center.

Buzz in the present

These days, there is a renewed vitality around town. BLO has a forward-thinking new leader in Esther Nelson, whose first season, announced amidst an economic downturn, includes the addition of a fourth opera, Britten’s “Turn of the Screw,’’ performed off-site at the Park Plaza Castle. Meanwhile, under Charnow’s and conductor Gil Rose’s adventurous direction, Opera Boston has been honing its approach to less familiar repertoire and is filling halls for performances of works as rarely heard as Shostakovich’s “The Nose.’’ This winter, in a major step, it will present its first commissioned work, “Madame White Snake,’’ by the Chinese emigre composer Zhou Long.

As for their venues, both companies are making the best of their current homes. The BLO is at the acoustically challenged Shubert Theatre, and Opera Boston is at the handsomely restored yet musically limiting Cutler Majestic Theatre, whose pit holds only about 35 musicians, far fewer than the company would need to really stretch its wings. (“We can basically do early Verdi, and backwards,’’ said Rose.)

Meanwhile, the happiest conductor working in a Boston pit these days must surely be Jonathan McPhee of Boston Ballet, which has now officially moved into the Opera House on Washington Street. “We’re loving it,’’ he said recently by phone of the ballet’s new home. “The consensus of all the musicians is it’s a wonderful environment to play in.’’ Opera Boston’s Rose confirmed, “It really has a proper pit now, which would house just about anything.’’

But while the space may now have all the necessary ingredients, don’t expect to see much actual opera in the Opera House in the near future. It will serve mainly as a home to its two prime tenants: Broadway Across America and Boston Ballet, which after seeing the Opera House as a key to its future, planned ahead years ago and signed an agreement to be in residence there for the next 30 years.

In a recent phone interview, Don Law, whose Boston Opera House Ventures owns the theater, sounded a hopeful note but was also quick to point out that his first commitments are to his primary tenants. “I used to watch Sarah Caldwell and thought she was brilliant in some of the things she did,’’ he said. “I would love to see some opera brought back. It comes down to whether it can work with the calendar we have.’’

In the meantime, Opera Boston plans to, as Charnow said, “dip a toe in the water’’ with one or two productions there in the coming years in addition to the normal main season at the Cutler Majestic. BLO, which has a longer run of performances so would require more time in the house, said it has no plans to give the Opera House a try. “For us,’’ said Nelson, “the Shubert or the Wang are still our only real options based on the time we need.’’

Even if arrangements could be made to begin slotting in more opera into the Opera House, everyone worries about the expense. From a business angle, opera in this country is by definition a losing proposition, in that even if a company sells out every seat in a run, its ticket sales cover only a fraction of the costs incurred. With a bigger stage and more seats to fill, opera in the Opera House would surely be much more costly. So looming behind the discussion of venues for opera in Boston is the question of just how committed the city and its opera fans are to supporting and sustaining opera in a major house.

There is perhaps positive inspiration to be drawn from the lead of other American cities big and small - Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Memphis, Nashville, Denver, Seattle, Madison, Wis., Kansas City, Mo. - that have recently been renovating or building designated spaces for opera. Ultimately, the contours of the local opera future are, of course, in the hands of the community, the city, and the state. In the meantime, a bustling scene continues, striving to reach a place from which it can imagine more.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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